Testing the boundaries between creole languages and colonial languages: The case of Palenquero and Spanish in Colombia

Creole languages develop when speakers of indigenous languages are compelled to adopt more powerful colonial languages. They are hybrids that combine aspects of both indigenous and colonial languages. In the Americas, for example, creoles emerged as colonial languages such as English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Dutch were forced on native populations whose use of the colonial languages was heavily influenced by their own indigenous languages.

Palenquero is a creole language which is based on Spanish, Portuguese-creole and African languages (particularly Kikongo) and spoken in Colombia. Today, Palenquero exists alongside Spanish, and most Palenquero speakers are bilingual, using both languages in a variety of situations. Palenquero speakers also mix both languages within the same situation, although code-mixing is frowned upon within the community. Lipski and his research team set out to determine whether Palenquero speakers set boundaries between their languages or whether this code-mixing can be attributed to the process of ‘decreolization’, whereby the creole language loses the characteristics of the indigenous language and becomes more like the colonial language upon which it is based (in this case: Spanish).

In order to test the boundaries between these two languages, older native speakers, Palenquero language teachers and learners were presented with various statements and asked to classify them as Spanish-only, Palenquero-only or mixed. All Palenquero speakers were consistently able to identify Palenquero-only and Spanish-only statements. However, across groups, many of the mixed Palenquero-Spanish statements went undetected. Older native speakers in particular tended to classify these as ‘Palenquero-only’, whereas teachers and learners were able to identify mixed statements more accurately. This result may reflect teachers’ and learners’ knowledge of Palenquero grammar, which older native speakers may not possess on a conscious level. In addition, some participants may not have wanted to admit that members of their community mix the two languages.

Participants were later required to listen to long statements in Palenquero, Spanish or both languages and to then repeat them. Because it is difficult to remember the exact wording of long statements, they had to fill in portions of these statements with their own words, which often resulted in spontaneous corrections of Spanish words in Palenquero statements. Even if participants were unaware of the code-mixing that had occurred, they automatically removed any Spanish words that had been present. This finding seems to indicate that speakers of Palenquero do set bounadries between their languages, which in turn suggests that Palenquero is not undergoing decreolization. At the same time, although code-mixing is discouraged within the community, it may often go unnoticed in daily communication.

Jessica Terese Mueller

Lipski, J.M. (2016). Palenquero and Spanish: A first psycholinguistic exploration. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, 31:1, 42 – 81.

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